Saturday, February 16, 2008

How much is your English?

One used to chart the market value of English—especially English learned to meet academic or work requirements—by the occupations that were attractive overseas.

So as domestic helpers, later teachers, then nurses, we are attractive “exports” because, we are told, we have the expertise and dispositions required for the work.

But most of all, we understand English and speak a version that is better than those other non-native speakers are capable of.

A few idiosyncrasies of our Filipino English have not dented our marketing edge abroad.

My sister, for instance, found a job easily enough despite initially confusing her New South Wales employer with a query about “filling up” the forms. With some concentration, I can remember to tell my students to “fill out” the blanks, but, more often than not, I always slip back to requesting a phone caller to wait “for a while,” instead of the more grammatical and clearer, “please wait.”

Though far from standard, Filipinisms add to the piquancy that sets apart the English we made into our own.

How will this be changed by call centers?

The country is ranked in the top 10 worldwide destinations for business process outsourcing. The Philippine government is eyeing to capture 50 percent of the total English-speaking global market in contact center services in 2008.

The rise of this sunshine industry, as well as the country’s vaulting ambitions, has made call centers the fastest, biggest employer of college graduates. Even many undergraduates have not been able to resist the high salary and other blandishments, settling for a lighter academic load or “resting” from their studies to fit in call center schedules.

The consequent resurgence of an interest in English leaves me with mixed feelings. As a journalism instructor and journalist called upon to edit mostly English compositions, I am relieved in the return of attention on grammar and other standards of English.

If mobile phone dependence singlehandedly twisted English beyond recognition in imperceptible but telling increments, emoticon by emoticon, the allure of call centers has made even the most reading-resistant coed read the newspapers to pick up some kind of English facility or American culture IQ.

But old-fashioned as I am, I wish that it had been literature or journalism that fuels this resurgence, not the cheapness of our labor (the bottomline raison d’etre behind the trend of relocating businesses to our Third World corner).

At the state university where I graduated and now teach, we once lost students during immersion: while doing community work or training at newspapers, interns decided that further academic work was superfluous and less meaningful than organizing communities at the grassroots or working as full-time reporters. One thesis advisee reappeared after months of silence to present a video documentary that had taken him beyond the radar of school and family. What was initially an academic prerequisite started him on a pilgrimage to the countryside and the far reaches of obsession.

Now, the casualties of chronic absenteeism in my 7:30 a.m. class are those working the graveyard shift or those too “amped” after timing out at the BPO enclaves to crawl into bed until just a few minutes before class starts.

Where is English in the sunshine economy?

On top of the homogenized US pop culture propagated by the mass media, call center culture rewards “Americanness,” from trainings to achieve a neutral-sounding accent familiar to North American clients to customer service orientations familiarizing workers in American history, culture and lifestyle.

Decades ago, Filipinos received a good tonic for colonial mentality when the imported goods they bought were “outed” by a tag or label that read “Made in the Philippines.”

In the future, the congenial and unaccented voice replying to a query may be too neutral to be identified for certain as belonging to a BPO worker in Cebu, India or Australia. That may bode well for the country’s employment and the gross national product.

But a future bereft of Filipinisms like “how much is your English?” seems vacuous and lifeless. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 17, 2008 issue

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